"Well, the thing is, you have to do something you normally wouldn't do," he says. "And there's one thing that you would never do. The ultimate thing."
"Quit," he says. "You'd never quit."
"Huh," I say. "I...well...that's interesting. But you're right, I couldn't do that."
"I know," he says. "That's why it's the ultimate thing."
Bouncy Ball # 52 - Girl at the Go-Kart Place
"Yes!" I say. "I won!"
Sosa and I are at an indoor go-kart track waiting for our race to start. There's a small arcade room here, so we decided to kill time by playing the basketball shooting game. Our games are linked, so we're competing against each other. I win the first game 44-42.
"It was close," Sosa says. "We're playing again."
If I'd lost, I would've said the same exact thing.
I wait while Sosa goes to get some more tokens. There's a little boy behind me at the air hockey table, his mouth open. "Did you just win that game?"
He runs off. A few seconds later, he comes back in with a girl, his friend, or maybe his sister. She's taller than him with long hair.
The boy points at me. "Her. She just beat a boy."
The girl turns to me, impressed. "You won? Do you play a lot?"
I shrug. "I used to play." I honestly can't believe their reaction, that they're so surprised a girl could win a shooting game. I gotta admit, though, I do feel pretty cool right now.
Sosa comes back with tokens. "Okay, now I'm ready." He puts them in the slot, and as the countdown to the game ticks away, the kids gather behind us. We start shooting, the kids cheering me on. I win again, 44-29. Sosa calls it a "massacre."
"Yes!" the girl yells. The boy jumps up and down in celebration. I give them high fives.
Sosa laughs. "Man!" he says. "I did even worse that time! We're playing again." Again, he walks off to get more tokens.
"Hey, do you guys want a bouncy ball?" I ask the kids.
I pull a couple from my bag, let them choose.
On our third game, I beat Sosa again. I don't even remember the score. A third kid joins my cheering squad.
"You're fucking killing it right now," Sosa says.
"Ooohhhh," the kids say. "He said a bad word."
After the game, Sosa says, "You're good at that. You realize, though, that now I definitely have to beat you in the go-kart race."
"Oh yeah," I say. "I totally get that."
The newest member of my cheer team walks over. "Excuse me," he says. "You gave my friends a bouncy ball. Can I have one, too?"
I smile. "Sure."
They finally call our race number, and I spend a glorious ten-minutes speeding around the track. For four laps, I annoy the fuck out of Sosa by not letting him pass me, but he finally breaks free, and I watch him ahead of me, battling it out with some cocky bald guy named Bert.
When the race is over, we all get printed-out scorecards that break down our lap times. I pick mine up. "Man, 4th place!" I say. Then, "Oh my God! Sosa, you won!"
"What?" He looks at me, his eyes huge. "I did?"
"You fucking won!"
"Oh my God, I won!"
We both start dancing right there in the lobby to celebrate, kids scrambling around us.
Bouncy Ball # 53 - Anonymous Me
"Hi, I'm Leah," I say.
"Hi Leah," a chorus of voices responds.
Even though I've heard them do this several times, I get a strange feeling when they say my name. I feel acknowledged, welcome. That feeling conflicts with the dominant thought racing through my mind during this Al-Anon meeting: "I shouldn't be here. I'm an impostor."
Al-Anon is a support group for people whose lives have been affected by alcoholics, and it provides a safe place for them to talk about this.
Weeks ago, I spoke with a friend of mine who attends meetings, and I related to a lot of the things she'd said. I grew up with an alcoholic stepfather, but I don't think it ever would've crossed my mind to attend a support group. I'd never step foot in this room if it weren't for my friend's recommendation and the fact that I have to do something I "normally wouldn't do" to get rid of a bouncy ball.
That's why I'm an impostor. Here are these people who need this, who get something important out of this, and here I am checking something off of the day's to-do list.
The last time I felt like an impostor I was getting my Master's in English. I'd sit in class without contributing to discussions because I felt like everyone else knew so much more than me. Look at all the words they use with confidence, I thought. Postmodernism, dominant discourse, hegemony.
Look at the guy with the patches on the elbows of his blazer, quoting Foucault about power and knowledge during a discussion about the Harlem Renaissance.
It's not that I didn't understand what they were talking about. It's just that I couldn't grasp the concept of talking about complicated matters in complicated terms. If the point of all this is to change things, to make progress, then why are we excluding people with the way we talk? Why can't we say big things in simple terms?
A few weeks into my American Lit class, my professor called me in to her office. "Your writing is really good," she'd said. "You make a lot of interesting points. I wish you would bring these up in class."
It floored me - there I was thinking I didn't belong. I talked to another grad student about it, and he'd smiled knowingly. "Ah, the Impostor Syndrome."
The Impostor Syndrome is a psychological mindset where people tend to belittle their accomplishments or abilities by writing them off as a fluke. They view themselves a incompetent or as an outsider even though by all standards, they do indeed belong.
Today, while I sit and squirm at the start of this Al-Anon meeting, those familiar impostor feelings creep up again.
But then people start sharing their stories. I won't relay what was said, but I can tell you this - it seems people whose lives have been affected by others' alcoholism share some common traits: anxiety, perfectionism, and the obsessive need to make everything "okay."
Maybe I do belong in here after all.
Even my feeling that I'm an impostor reflects where I came from - it's me wanting to believe I'm fine, that I'm not like the other people in this room. Because when I grew up, there were bigger problems to deal with in my house, so I always wanted to appear "okay." I always wanted to maintain at least the outward show of perfection.
Funny how it is this, the fact that I feel like such an impostor, that actually connects me to everyone else in this room.
A couple months ago, I was talking about addiction to a friend of mine, who's been sober for years.
"I think I can sympathize with addiction," I'd said. "I mean, I don't really have a drug problem. But I get so attached to people, you know? I get addicted to them."
"It's funny you say that," she said. "When you're addicted to something, and you give it up, it's like you lost your best friend. There's this thing that was always there - it's there when you're happy, when you're sad - and then one day, you have to walk around and live life without it. You have to figure out how to function like it was never part of you at all."
Bouncy Ball # 54 - Tom and Cathy
"Okay," I say, approaching a couple sitting at the bar in the Keynote Lounge. "Are you gonna explain that to me, or what?"
I just got offstage at an open mic in Ventura. It's a hike to get here - the drive took an hour and a half - but I got to do almost 20 minutes, and the crowd is mostly "real people."
During my set, I'd talked to this couple, and I found out that the man, Tom, is here tonight celebrating his 71st birthday. When I'd asked him about it, he'd responded, "Everyone gets one. No one gets two."
That sentence confused me, so after my set, I ask him about it.
"Everyone gets one," Tom explains. "No one gets two."
"No, I know," I say. "But what do you mean?"
He sighs. "Everyone gets one birthday."
"Oh, you mean like every year?" I laugh. "I was thinking it meant something deeper."
"Actually," Cathy pipes in, "I disagree with that."
"Yeah, I think that you can have your birthday, and you can also have another birthday that celebrates the day something important happened. My daughter is a cancer survivor, and that day she heard that she beat it, that's her birthday."
"Wow," I say.
"And I survived open heart surgery," Tom says.
Cathy pokes his chest. "That's your birthday."
"Are you guys from here?" I ask.
"Yeah," Cathy says. "We live right down the street. And where are you from?"
"She's from Oklahoma!" Tom says. "Remember? She said it on stage." Then to me, "What part of Oklahoma?"
Tom's eyes light up.
"You know it?"
"Do I know it? Why, yes! I used to date a girl that lived in Bethany."
"Nope, small world. Can you believe that? But that girl broke up with me. She could've moved with me to San Diego where they don't have those crazy tornadoes, but she decided she wanted to stay right there in Bethany."
I look over at Cathy, her face in a pout. "Yeah," she says. "You could've brought her here with you." She's jealous.
"Honey," Tom says. "That was probably before you were even born." He pats her knee, and she smiles.
Bouncy Ball # 55 - Foosball Table in 33 Taps
"You want to quit so bad, don't you?" Sosa asks while we cross the street to 33 Taps, a bar in Hollywood where my friend runs an open mic.
"Yes!" I'm complaining (as usual) because I haven't done my bouncy ball thing yet. I'm hoping that something interesting will happen at this mic because it falls under my rules - I've never been here. It's new. It's enough.
But nothing of note happens inside. It's just a mic. I stand and watch like the rest of the comics scattered about the room.
"Ohhhhh!" I hear behind me, and I turn to see Jeff, his fists in the air. They must've won the foosball game.
I check the time. 10:00.
I walk over to the table and place my bouncy ball in the center. "Hey Preston," I say. "Play this bouncy ball with me."
Preston shrugs, walks up to the other side of the table to control his men, turns his offensive men one time, and hits the ball directly into my goal. It takes less than a second.
"Well," I say. "That's that." I'm about to leave, but now all the comics seem concerned. Preston is reaching into the goal trying to pull out the ball.
"I can't get it." He pulls his head down to look into the hole. "I can see it in there."
Rick walks over and tries to reach in the hole. "Shit, that's not coming out of there."
"What's the problem?" I ask.
Everyone ignores me.
For the next five minutes, four comics try to figure out how to get my ball out of the table.
"I meant to leave that in there," I say. "I don't need it."
Finally, Rick looks at me. "Leah, if the ball is covering the chute, then the other balls can't go through, and the machine won't work."
"Oh," I say. "So I broke this? Just now? I broke this."
He shrugs. Two comics get on the opposite side and lift it while I try to explain. "It literally didn't occur to me that I might break it. There's hinges on the table. They'll eventually be able to open it and unclog it, right?"
"Sure," Rick says. "But it says your name on it."
"Oh yeah." I laugh.
It's at that point that Megan, one of the most blunt people on the planet, walks over, assesses the situation, and says, "How about we all just walk away?"
I point to her. "Yes." And I leave.
"At this point," I tell Sosa while we walk to my car, "I'm just causing problems."
Bouncy Ball # 56 - Mario
I'm sitting on my couch wishing I didn't have to leave to find a bouncy ball quest when I hear a knock at my door.
I open it, holding my dog's collar. There's a teenage boy on my doorstep holding a duffel bag and a binder. "Hi," he says. "I'm hoping I can interest you in buying some items to support our school program."
"Hold on." I drag Davey Dog to my room and shut the door, then I open the screen door. "You can come in. I don't want my cat to run out."
The boy hesitates, and I briefly wonder if I've crossed some sort of boundary. Wait, do I look like I might murder teenage boys?
Still, he comes in, and he sets up on my living room floor, giving his salesman spiel while I watch, the corner of my lips turning into a slow smile. I remember this kid.
He gets on his knees in the middle of my living room and opens the duffel bag. He pulls out a bag of trail mix, a puzzle, some gummy worms, an oven mitt set. He pulls out two candles. "This one is sandalwood," he says, "and this one is a lovely vanilla scent."
He pulls out a jelly bean dispenser shaped like a dog. "He doesn't bite," he says, chuckling at his own joke.
I laugh. "What's your name?"
"Well nice to meet you. I'm Leah." We shake hands. "So what do you get out of this?"
"I get to go on a trip to Universal Studios with my class."
"Cool," I say. "But I mean, do you like doing this?"
"Actually, yes, I really do," he says. "I didn't like it at first though. The reason I had to start was because I got in trouble."
"Oh really? What'd you do?"
He looks down. He doesn't want to answer me. "I just got in trouble at school," he says. "So they showed me a list of programs I could do as part of my punishment, and my mom made me sign up for one. She said I only had to do it for a month, and then I could quit if I didn't like it. But after a few weeks, I started to like it."
"So how long have you been doing it?"
"Over a year," he says. "Actually, it'll be two years on May 29th."
"Wow," I say. "You must like it!"
"Well, yeah," he says. "But also, it's a way that I can do my own thing. It's hard at my house. I have a brother and sister, and we're just trying to get by, so there's not a lot of money. This is really the only way we can do fun things."
"How old are you?"
I nod, walking to my couch to retrieve my purse. "And what was the coolest trip you've gone on so far?"
His face lights up. "Catalina Island."
"Oh, I want to go there!" I say. "Well, listen, I want to buy some of your stuff, but I don't have a lot of cash. So how much are these?"
He points to a couple items. "These are all seven." Then he points to the candy, the candles, the doghouse. "And these are five."
"Okay," I say. "I think I'll take the candle."
I hand him a five, then reach in my purse and pull out a bouncy ball. "Also, can I give you this bouncy ball? I believe they're good luck."
"Sure," he says. "Actually, I really like getting random things like this. It keeps me going."
I shrug. "Well, I wish I could buy more from you."
"Oh, it's okay," he says. "You know, the best part of all this? It's talking to the people. They really really want to help as much as they can."
He packs up his duffel bag and stands to leave. Before he does, he turns to my bookshelf and points to a candle sitting on it, the wick used all the way to the bottom. "Hey, we used to sell these."
I nod. "Yeah, I bought it from you over a year ago."
We shake hands. When I close the door behind him, I'm relieved. I don't have to be anywhere for at least an hour because the Universe sent a bouncy ball story right to my doorstep.
I open a beer, turn on the TV, and light my new vanilla candle.
Bouncy Ball # 57 - High School Student from Denver
My good friend Whitney lives in Denver, where she teaches Creative Writing to high school students.
This morning, I get a message from her - two scanned pages with annotated notes on the side.
Whitney had taken one of my bouncy ball stories and given it to her class as an example for their assignment. "They have to record observations and create prose from the scenarios they encounter," she writes. "And as I was reading this, I knew I had to use it."
I'm truly honored.
So here it is - annotated notes on something I wrote from a high school writer in Denver:
Bouncy Ball # 58 - Brad
I'd be lying if I said I put any thought into today's bouncy ball quest. Still, I've done several things today that I "normally wouldn't do." I went to happy hour with my co-workers, I carpooled to mics with Jonathan, and I ended up at a bar in Koreatown for a comic's birthday party.
This time last year, I'd missed the same comic's birthday party because I'd eaten too much of a weed brownie, and I freaked out in the passenger's seat of Sosa's car. He'd had to take me home and coax me to bed.
Today, I feel like a completely different person than I was one year ago. I think I am a different person.
Before I leave the bar, I ask Brad to start a dance circle in the middle of the bar, and he does because he's just that kind of person, one of the only people in this room confident enough to do it. Once he starts, everyone dances with him.
I don't say anything, just grab his hand and put a bouncy ball in his palm.
Two days later, he tells me that it meant a lot to him.
Ok, Guys. Real talk time.
When I posted my last bouncy ball blog, I felt pretty shitty about it. I felt the writing wasn't my best, and it bothered me that I had to put something out there I didn't feel one hundred percent behind.
I can do better than that. And for you, the people who read this, I feel like I owe it to you to do better than that because we live in an online world of 140-character jokes and short sketch videos, so it's a big deal that anyone reads these stories all the way through.
I appreciate that. I really really appreciate it.
Last week was a breaking point for me because I realized the stories I produce aren't what I wanted to come from this. I know I said at the start that I had no plan, but that wasn't true - I did expect something to come out of this project, but I didn't know what it was. And now, two months in, it seems so obvious to me that when I wrote Week 7, I felt like it was something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do.
If that's the case, what am I gaining from this?
And that's when I seriously considered quitting. I talked to my best friend Rockey about it. I told him that I felt like I couldn't enjoy my life because of all this unnecessary pressure I put on myself.
"It seems like every month, people I know are dying," he'd said. "Just be happy and live life. Life really is too short to put so much pressure on yourself to do things that don't make you happy!"
So with his blessing, I started to formulate a plan for how I'm going to quit.
I thought of how I would make this an epic story, how I could gracefully bow out by explaining to you, my friends, why I couldn't go on, why it was in fact better if I didn't. I would explain to you that if I really wanted to fix myself, to make myself a better person, isn't quitting the best way to do that? Can't giving up actually provide me with the freedom to forget about what other people think?
Wouldn't quitting help me to live in reality?
I tell Sosa about my plan. "It's gonna be great," I say. "I'm going to write something great."
"No, no, no," he says. "You can't do that."
"Leah, if you're gonna quit, you have to just quit. You can't try to justify it. You have to write, 'I'm not doing this any more. Goodbye.' And then nothing else."
He's right. And if I can't quit like that, then I just can't quit.
That's when I came up with a new plan, a loophole that will solve all of my problems with this project.
I know exactly what to do. And I think it's what this was supposed to be all along.